For the holidays this year, my wife and I got to spend Christmas Eve with the Pope. Thanks to the impeccable connections of my father-in-law the Benedictine monk, coupled with 4 hours of waiting outside in St. Peter’s Square we were able to grab coveted aisle seats inside St. Peter’s Basilica for Christmas Eve Mass. During both the processional and recessional we were literally within arms length of Il Papa.
I’m not Catholic, but it was a great privilege nonetheless. Absolutely the most majestic church service I have ever attended.
While it was certainly a deeply spiritual night for me and many others, if you had just kept an eye on the guy next to me, you would have thought we were at a Justin Beiber concert.
During the recessional I was getting myself situated to redeem the terribly blurry pictures I took during the processional. Out of nowhere a guy started elbowing his way in between me and the woman standing next to me. Being focused on the task at hand, I was annoyed, but didn’t make a big deal about it. Had I known how that guy would react when the Pope walked by, things would have gone a bit differently.
When I say it was like being at (what I assume) a Justin Beiber concert (would be like), I’m not exaggerating. In the blink of an eye this adult man turn into a hysteric teenage girl. He was literally screaming, flailing his arms, and jumping up and down to get the Pope’s attention. If for no other reason than he was creating a ridiculous scene, he got his wish and Benedict looked our direction. It made the guy’s life….and ruined any chance I had of getting a steady picture.
We may not have a pope in Protestant evangelicalism, but we have plenty of Christian celebrities of our own. In fact, it’s become an epidemic.
Some of them pastor mega-multi-site churches. Others shepherd much smaller congregations. Still others neither pastor nor teach theology, yet manage to produce a never ending stream of Christian literature aimed at teaching us all how to live out the faith. In each case, these evangelical celebrities create a cult of personality around themselves (whether intentionally or not) in which followers pledge their allegiance and unquestionably accept virtually everything they say, or at least refuse to hold these figures accountable when they say something abhorrent.
We need look no further than Mark Driscoll’s declaration that “God hates you” or John Piper’s recent statement that “God intended Christianity to have a masculine feel” as examples of the unquestioned loyalty of their followers. When critics, myself included, pushed back at these absurd claims, few if any of their followers were willing to concede the misstep. Instead, they quickly came to their defense, arguing that any criticism was an invalid attack on men just trying to serve the Lord.
This same situation happens on a smaller scale at churches most of us will never hear anything about. There are countless small and medium sized churches whose pastors have become the focal point of church life. Congregations show up on Sundays to hear them speak, their personal theology is orthodoxy, the congregation pledges unyielding loyalty, and any dissent is quickly squashed and/or shoved out the door.
What results in these situations, both big and small, is a frightening amount of control. Matthew Paul Turner made us all aware of just how damaging the cult like control can be when he posted a so-called “discipline contract” from Mars Hill, along with instructions on what its members should do and say to the excommunicated member should they happen to cross paths. Tragically, but not surprisingly, people came out in droves in response to tell their own stories of spiritual abuse. And that’s exactly what it is: spiritual abuse. Absolute power may corrupt absolutely, but absolute spiritual power destroys the soul.
God appointed shepherds to serve the church, not control it. When these shepherds take on the role of ultimate authority and arbitrator of truth, they become the very anti-thesis of Jesus who did “nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit”, but rather “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.” The church needs more servants and fewer messiahs.
Unfortunately, this cult of evangelical celebrities affects us all and ultimately it has a devastating effect on the church. When there is no over-arching authority or unified voice to speak for the church, these Christian celebrities are allowed to become the faces and voices of the church. As a result, the church is perceived by the rest of the world as disjointed, irrational, anti-intellectual, and often times hateful. However, the problem here is not simply bad press.
In the 21st century, television, the internet, and social media have become our town squares. They are the places where we gather to learn about the world and formulate our opinions. When the majority of what is said about the faith in these modern town squares comes from these evangelical celebrities, their personal opinions become the accepted theology of the majority and by extension the de facto popular orthodoxy.
This is a terrifying proposition, not least of all because the theologies espoused by these celebrities often run counter to the historical Christian faith and too often are simply hateful and ignorant. When this happens, the church quickly becomes populated by hateful and ignorant people convinced they are simply being Christian because the voices they believe they should trust, the ones at the center of the town square, tell them those things they believe are actually Christian. Likewise, when people allow these celebrities to do all of their thinking for them and those celebrities are subsequently either proven wrong or abuse that trust, the followers’ faith is more often than not irrevocably shattered.
In an ever increasingly connected world I think trying to reverse this onslaught would be like trying to fix a massive rupture in a dam by sticking your finger in the hole. We could try to counter their celebrity with “better” celebrities, but I think that would just result in more noise. Instead, if the church is to at least stem the tide of insanity, I believe that it will only come about through better, healthier discipleship at the local level.
I think a large part of the reason that people attach themselves to these evangelical celebrities is that they aren’t finding substance at their own church or from their own pastors. This might not always be a fair charge, but if we as pastors are so failing our people that they think they need to turn to celebrities to learn the faith, then we should begin to reevaluate and retool our own teaching methods. In either case, I think the church is capable of equipping her people with the tools to recognize the difference between a strong, healthy spiritual leader and a self-absorbed publicity hound. And in the meantime, I think it is imperative that those evangelical celebrities with such an enamored following, if they genuinely care about the church and her people, should make sure that they continually go out of their way to remind their followers of their own humanity and fallibility. It would do both them and the church a great amount of good.
Simply put, the cult of personality that gives rise to evangelical celebrities and provides pastors with absolute control over their congregations is something that must come to an end if the church is to enjoy a healthy and vibrant future.
Grace and peace,